“It’s a funny old house. They have this ceremony every summer . . . There’s an old chapel, in the grounds of the house. Half-derelict. The Hunters keep bees in there. Every year, on the same day, the family processes to the chapel. They open the combs, taste the honey. Take it back to the house. Half for them -‘ my father winced, as though he had bitten down on a sore tooth. ‘And half for us.”
Catherine, a successful barrister, vanishes from a train station on the eve of her anniversary. Is it because she saw a figure – someone she believed long dead? Or was it a shadow cast by her troubled, fractured mind?
The answer lies buried in the past. It lies in the events of the hot, seismic summer of 1989, at Vanes – a mysterious West Country manor house – where a young girl, Jane Lestrange, arrives to stay with the gilded, grand Hunter family, and where a devastating tragedy will unfold. Over the summer, as an ancient family ritual looms closer, Janey falls for each member of the family in turn. She and Kitty, the eldest daughter of the house, will forge a bond that decades later, is still shaping the present . . .
“We need the bees to survive, and they need us to survive. Once you understand that, you understand the history of Vanes, you understand our family.”
Unreliable narrators? Grand country manor house? Tragic family secret? Mysterious rituals? Yes, The Beloved Girls has all the makings of Shelf of Unread catnip and, sure enough, I couldn’t get enough of this engrossing tale of family, friendship, and identity.
Set across several timelines, Harriet Evans’s latest novel follows Catherine, a successful barrister who has just completed a high-profile and extremely harrowing case, and is due to head off for a much-needed break with her beloved husband. When Catherine suddenly leaves, vanishing from the station and leaving her husband with only a photo of ‘The Beloved Girls’, she sparks a frantic missing persons investigation – and a journey into a past that she has long been trying to hide.
Because back during one long hot summer in 1989, there were two beloved girls – Catherine ‘Kitty’ Hunter and Jane ‘Janey’ Lestrange. Kitty and Janey spend the summer at Vanes, the grand and imposing West Country home of the Hunter family – and home also to ‘The Collecting’, a strange family ritual involving the historic beehives that are kept in the nearby chapel. Recently bereaved and cast adrift in the world, Janey is captivated by each member of the Hunter family in turn – patriarch Charles, effervescent Sylvia, handsome Joss, precocious Merry, and pretty, popular Kitty. But all is not well at Vanes and the Hunters are hiding secrets. Secrets that bound Sylvia to Janey’s father Simon in devastating ways – and that will bind Kitty and Janey together in ways that will shape both their lives well into the future.
I do love a ‘mysterious country house’ story and The Beloved Girls certainly provided! I was immediately drawn into the lives of the enigmatic Hunter family and could completely see the allure they held for plain, shy Janey, grieving the loss of her beloved father and desperately trying to avoid the secretarial fate decreed for her by her resentful absent mother.
Weaving between the 1950s, 1980s and the present day, and following the interwoven lives of several characters, The Beloved Girls is a deep and, at times, complex read. I never lost the thread of any of the stories, but given some of the deliberate blurring of identities and relationships, there were the odd moments where I had to flick back a few pages to double check a connection or re-read a paragraph to figure out exactly what was going on.
Partly this is because one of the narratives – that of Catherine – is deliberately disjointed. Suffering from immense mental pressure after the outcome of her last case, Catherine is a portrait of a woman on the verge of (and tipping into) a complete breakdown. I have to admit that, at first, I found Catherine and her “I’m fine, really” attitude rather annoying but, as the story progressed, I began to empathise with her fractured sense of self and to understand the history that lay behind her carefully constructed façade of coolness and competence. As Catherine’s connection to the Hunter family – and to the tragic events of the summer of 1989 – became apparent, I found myself admiring Harriet Evans’s complex and layered portrayal of Catherine. I’m still not wholly sure I ‘like’ her as a character, but I definitely feel as if the author made me understand her.
The strange and unusual nature of the Hunter family also takes a bit of getting used to. Their ritual – ‘The Collecting’ – is like something out of The Wicker Man and, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there is a much darker side to this seemingly ancient family tradition. Indeed, The Beloved Girls is, in places, a much darker novel than its cover (which is absolutely stunning) might lead you to think, with discussion or mention of sexual and psychological violence, grooming, coercive control, gaslighting, suicide and mental breakdown all featuring as part of the main story threads. These dark themes are handled sensitively however, with Evans weaving together an intelligent and atmospheric modern saga of family secrets, loss, guilt, and resilience.
With its rich intertwining narratives and grand scale, The Beloved Girls is an immersive, layered novel about family and identity that is sure to appeal to fans of Kate Morton, Kristin Hannah, and Barbara Erskine. It’s not exactly a quick read, being one of those books best savoured slowly, but if you’re looking for a narrative to sink into and whisk you away as the nights begin to draw in and the last of the year’s bees wander lazily around your garden, you could do far worse than this captivating and compelling novel.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 31 August 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!